Egypt struggles to stem organ trafficking
Cairo - There are concerns that Egypt will not be able to end rampant human organ trafficking, although it has cracked down on trafficking rings, closed medical institutions that commit violations and tried to ensure transplants are performed within the law.
The efforts to stem organ trafficking may fail, however, because of the socio-economic conditions in Egypt as well its organ transplant law’s focus on prohibition rather than on creating a legal framework for such procedures and the presence of gangs that thrive on buying organs from illegal African migrants.
“Over the past few years, the gap has virulently widened between commodity prices and real income for millions of people,” said Samia Khedr, a sociology professor at Ain Shams University. “Because of poverty, more people view their body organs as alternative sources of income.”
More than 27% of Egyptians were considered poor in 2016. Poverty is expected to rise as commodity price increases induced by the weakening of the Egyptian pound continue while individual incomes are unchanged.
Alaa Nour, 40, said he sold a kidney two years ago because he needed money.
“I wanted to get married and start a new life,” said Nour, a salesman from the southern province of Sohag. “A friend of mine convinced me to sell a kidney.”
Kidneys are among the most popular in the organ trafficking business here but organ selling comes at a huge cost for sellers.
Nour received $10,500, which he used to rent a flat in Cairo and buy a car he uses to work for an online transportation network. However, he could not leave his bed for six months after the operation.
Organ trafficking has thrived in Egypt for years. The country is among the top five in the world in illegal human organ trafficking, the World Health Organisation said.
In December, authorities arrested 41 people, including doctors, nurses, intermediaries and university professors, alleged to be members of a transnational organ trafficking ring in Cairo and Giza province.
The incident was an indication of the size of organ trafficking in Egypt, described by the British Journal of Criminology (BJC), an international review of crime and society, as one of the world’s “largest organ bazaars”.
People travel to Egypt to shop for body organs, knowing they can find whatever they want in a country where thousands of poor citizens are ready to trade an organ for money.
Although official figures are difficult to come by, Nihal Fahmy, an expert on human trafficking and a former consultant of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said as many as 5,000 cases of organ trafficking occur in Egypt each year.
“This is not only about organ selling at the consent of parties concerned,” Fahmy said. “It is also about organs taken either by force or by deception.” She said in 2015, 33 cases of organ theft were reported in Egypt.
Most organ sales and thefts happen among the hundreds of thousands of African refugees in Egypt. When they arrive, refugees are often caught in Egypt’s poverty and joblessness.
“This is exactly when refugees start thinking of selling organs to get money to get by,” said Alaa Ghanem, head of the Right to Health Section at local non-governmental organisation Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “Some refugees are swindled out of their organs and not given money.”
Those refugees, Ghanem said, do not report such crimes for fear of arrest.
Some refugees try to cross into Israel through the vast deserts of the Sinai peninsula, where organ theft is becoming common. Health Minister Ahmed Emad has vowed to fight organ trafficking and several hospitals have been closed as part of that effort.
Ghanem said, however, that Egypt’s organ transplant law fails to address the root causes of trafficking while focusing on prohibition.
The Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues law, which was approved in 2010 and only started being enforced in 2015, prohibits the commercial exchange of organs. It says individuals implicated in organ sales are liable for trafficking offences.
Nonetheless, commercial transplants have persisted within Egypt, said BJC, adding that the law has had little effect on the organ trade.
Ghanem said the law does not address people’s need for organ transplants, only prohibiting the commercial use of organs.
“At one side you have those who need transplants and at the other there are those who are ready to exchange organs but the law stands in the middle, which is why organ sales go underground,” he said. “To solve this problem, we need to make the law more flexible to allow for organ sales.”